Goalkeepers Are Us

North Korea's goalkeeper Ri Myong-Guk fails to catch the ball as Brazil scores during their 2010 World Cup group G first round football match on June 15, 2010 at Ellis Park stadium in Johannesburg. Brazil won 2-1.

John Doyle
The Globe and Mail
Published on Tuesday, June 15, 2010

So far this is a World Cup of goalkeeper dramas and traumas. A little respect for the guys, please.

England’s Robert Green making the most-mocked error in recent English history. Faouzi Chaouchi of Algeria gifting Slovenia a 1-0 win with that terrible fumble of a weak shot. Paraguay’s Justo Villar’s dramatic miss when he tried to fist away the ball and thus allow Italy’s Daniele De Rossi to inelegantly ram the ball into the empty net.

Italy too has a potential problem with Gianluigi Buffon. He has a back injury and had to be replaced at halftime in the game against Paraguay. During that game, Buffon cut a striking figure. All in white, but wearing black stockings in the cold and rain, and with ornate gloves, he looked improbably chic. Even the TV commentator on the feed used by the CBC noticed. He took a moment to say Buffon looked “resplendent.”

Oh, those soccer goalies. It’s like hockey, only worse. In a sport wherein a 0-0 draw can salvage a point and mean salvation, or a single goal can mean disaster, the goalkeeper is among the most richly symbolic figures in the culture of soccer countries. He’s the last defender, in a role that represents the awfulness of life in a nutshell – anyone can go from hero to villain in seconds. Alienated, under pressure and safe-keeper of more than a goalmouth, the keeper is feared, exalted, sometimes despised and always alone.

Here in North America the news may not have not been given much play, but it’s worth remembering that German keeper Robert Enke, who had a distinguished club career in several countries, committed suicide last year. He had battled depression for years.

What happened to Robert Green was awful, but not truly tragic. It brought back into focus a story the English media had conveniently ignored – England has a goalkeeper problem. For years now, no resolutely solid keeper has emerged to play the permant role for the national team. Along with Green in South Africa there are fellow keepers David James and Joe Hart. None is outstanding. James, known as “Calamity James” for his occasional but freakish errors of judgment, is a possible pick for Friday’s game against Algeria, though Fabio Capello might have seen too many videos of James at a loss in dealing with set pieces. Hart, who plays for Birmingham City, is far from Capello’s first choice, having been used mainly in exhibition games and even then usually only brought on as a substitute.

No matter who plays in England’s remaining games, the situation will be fraught. Whoever it is could write a book about it and all the accompanying pressure. Thing is, one of them might write a book. The likely contender for that role is James, who already writes interesting commentary for The Guardian and The Observer.

Did you know about soccer goalkeepers and writing? Well, the following famous literary figures have been goalkeepers – Albert Camus, Vladimir Nabokov and Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Also a Polish guy named Karol Wojty. He later wrote a play, became a priest and, eventually, became Pope John Paul II.

The soccer keeper has also been a figure from which writers extrapolate meaning. Camus, a Nobel Prize winner, wrote (for France Football magazine) “All I know about morality and the obligations of men, I owe to football.” Austrian writer Peter Handke wrote perhaps the definitive serious work of fiction – “The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty,” which was filmed in 1971 by Wim Wenders. Both book and movie use the soccer goalie as the basis for analyzing contemporary human alienation. A goalkeeper is sent off during a game for committing a foul. Then he commits murder but barely attempts to evade the police.

At one key moment he watches a game and explains the terrible dilemma that faces a goalkeeper at the moment of a penalty kick. The impossibility of anticipating the kicker’s action. The futility of diving to the left or right and guessing the direction of the ball. This, it seems, is the wretchedness of life encapsulated.

Then there’s the play “The Lonely Goalkeeper” by Toronto-based, Bosnia-born poet Goran Simic. Performed in Toronto in 2005, it’s set in a desolate place much like the Balkans after the horrific ethnic conflicts there. There are only two characters, with the main figure being a goalkeeper who plays with a ball alone in a graveyard. It emerges that Simic sees a goalkeeper as the keeper of secrets, the one who truly remembers the games – or wars – played, because he is the last line of defence.

The American writer John Turnbull, who runs the marvelous soccer site The Globe Game, has written about the symbolic significance of the soccer goalie and says, “Goalkeepers in modern times, in certain cultures, are proxies for collective identity in the way that they defend a nation’s self-conception and moral rectitude.” What happened to Robert Green was a nation’s self-conception disintegrating, for the entire world to see – the shame and humiliation, his terrible need to keep going and show the world he could stop the next shot.

It’s an awful job. We should show some respect and sympathy.

Some Great Keepers

Gordon Banks. Considered England’s best ever, Banks became a global legend at the World Cup in Mexico in 1970 when he denied Pele a goal. Pele had already shouted “Goal!” when Banks leapt from one post to the other to stop the ball. Pele later described that save as the best he had ever seen.

José Luis Chilavert. Not just Paraguay’s keeper for over a decade, Chilsvert was also prolific goalscorer, being a gifted at penalties and free kicks. Such was his reliability that he would take free kicks in any area of the field. In his club and international career he scored 62 goals. He was also famously combative. Known to brawl with players who badgered him in the goalmouth and once throwing a punch at a reporter who suggested that he’d put on weight. He last appeared at the 2002 World Cup.

Oliver Kahn. During his time as the principal German goalkeeper, 1995-2006, Kahn was ‘keeper, team leader, sometimes captain and considered the embodiment of German manhood. Notorious for his shouting and swearing at his own defenders, he had no problem with being called “King Kahn” in Germany and being celebrated in pop songs. His ego was on display to the end, when his displeasure at being displaced by Jens Lehmann was clear to the world.

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